Egypt: History - Abbasid Period

Abbasid Period

The first and second Muslim civil wars appear to have made little difference in Cairo's life, though the governors of Egypt now received their orders from Damascus instead of Medina. It also changed the nature of the Khalifate from elected to hereditary rule. But these wars did set the stage for the third civil war, which would have considerable effect. The third civil war was a reaction to the extravagance, decadence and what was seen as a deterioration of Islamic faith in the Umayyads rulers. In addition, the civil war brought rulers to the Islamic world which for the first time were not Arabic, but rather Persian and Turks, and Egypt was now ruled from Baghdad. This civil war would create a shift in ruling families, from Umayyads to Abbasid. More importantly, it would give Egyptians their first taste of the Shi'i form of Islam. Most Egyptians prior to this, throughout most of their Islamic history and today, are orthodox Sunni. Actually, the Islamic world was now or soon to be ruled by three (or more) different Khalifs, including a Shi'i Kalif in North Africa (the Aghlabid dynasty), the Abbasids in Baghdad and the Umayyads who still maintained a hold on Islamic Spain. But there was also fragmentation in Morocco, under the Alid dynasty of Idrisids, and the Tahirids of Khurasan.

Fustat was captured by the Abbasid general Saleh in 750 AD. Saleh, like all Muslim rulers, disliked the idea of establishing his authority on the bones of previous rulers, so he made his new headquarters on a flat stretch of dry land on the northern tip of Fustat. This new district was called El Askar, meaning "the Soldiers" in Arabic. As time passed, El Askar became integrated with Fustat, and later still, really lost its identity as a true separate district.

In 779, Abu Salih became the first Turkish-born governor. He was classified as Arabic, but was born a Turk. The Abbasid rule was at once more restrictive for the individuals and more open intellectually. New laws were laid down for living, behavior and dress, and these laws were enforced. All doors and gates were ordered to be left open, however if anyone was caught stealing, they were beheaded. The rulers in Baghdad, including the famous Harun al Rashid, opened their court to Greek classical studies such as the works of Aristotle, as well as poetry from India and Persia. In fact, the Muslim scholars did much more than simply preserve ancient learning. They also expanded upon it, adding to the sciences of medicine, mathematics and astronomy, among others. It is understandable that Islamic intellectuals would flourish at a time when the west was floundering in ignorance. Mohammed's teachings insisted on literacy for all at a time when most leaders cared nothing about the education of the common people. Some of this enlightenment was transferred to the west, which kindled a rebirth of learning and eventually led Christian Europe out of the dark ages and into the Renaissance.

One of the most significant trends established by the Abbasid rule were the use of Turkish war slaves. Later, they would be called the Mamelukes and would be used as a mercenary army, then even as governors and rulers of Egypt. This went on until Mohammed Ali disposed of them in the early 19th century. At first these slave soldiers were simply an accident of the Abbasid system of educating "acquired" children in the court to grow up into a loyal bodyguard. This civil service was therefore without roots in the society itself, so they could be trusted to do as they were told, no matter what was happening outside of the court. These slaves were not beaten, or usually made to do brutal work, but were instead trained in good soldiering. Yet as time passed, they began to rule the rulers, and finally, one of them set himself up in Fustat as the master and not the slave. This was Ahmad Ibn Tulun.

The Tulunids under the Abbasids, Egypt was often loosely governed by the Baghdad Khalif's appointees, many of whom did not rule from Egypt. The administration in Egypt began to disintegrate, with taxes becoming intolerable and inflation on the rise. In the 868, the khalif sent a Turkish governor, Ahmad Ibn Tulun to take charge of the situation. Ibn Tulun was the son of a Turkish slave from Bokhara who was given as a present to the Khalif Mamun in 815. His son, became educated in the highest traditions of the period, and earned considerable respect for his brave and loyal service to the Khalif. He soon consolidated the government, steadied the economy and imposed order. But seeing better uses for Egypt's treasury at home, he sent less and less of the tax revenues to Baghdad. In 868 he declared his independence from the Baghdad Khalifate, but he was also careful to maintain ties with the Abbasids. Actually, he was intelligent enough to maintain the trade with the East which made him rich. It is said that he had to borrow money to make the original trip to Fustat, but by 870, he needed new quarters to house all of his soldiers, ministers, wives and slaves. Therefore, like all notable rulers before him, he also established a new city called al-Qatai (the Quarters).

Qatai's name is derived from the fact that the city was divided between districts, or quarters, each housing a separate segment of its population (soldiers, servants, guards, Greeks or Romans, Nubians, etc). It is said that each segment also had its own gate to enter the city, including a Gate of Nobles, a Gate of Lions, a gate called el Darmun for the captain of the guards, and even a special triple arched gate for Ibn Tulun himself.

This new city was located north of Fustat on a small knoll of high ground called Yeshkur. This knoll, located between Fustat and the Mukattam Hills was considered a holy place, where Moses had conversations with God and where Abraham slew his sacrifice. Ibn Tulun built his palace there, along with a Harem palace, a garden, a racetrack, polo grounds, a zoo, baths, and fine homes for his staff. There was also a Midan (square) el Qatai, which was very popular with the people, and where there was something going on almost all of the time. It is said that Ibn Tulan built a summer home high up on the Gate of Lions, from which he could look down on this square that would be filled with people, lights and gaiety, especially on feast days. He also established a proud tradition of building hospitals, including the first one in Egypt. The story tells of a servant traveling in Upper Egypt one day when his horse fell into a hole. In the hole, he found a treasure worth a million dinars. In gratitude to God, Ibn Tulun built his first hospital, which was free to the civil population of Fustat, using some of this treasure. In 876, he also built his mosque on the crown of the hill, which today is considered to be one of the most important and also most beautiful Muslim monuments in the world.

Though he passed his rule to his sons, they were not great statesman or administers. His son, Khumaraweh, ruled after Ibn Tuluns death, and was one of the "characters" that sometimes grace Egypt's history. He made his father's Midan into an exotic garden, with tropical trees, roses, jasmine, lilies and shrubs. But not liking the stalks of the trees, he had every trunk and branch coated in sheets of copper and lined with water pipes, so that each tree now became a fountain. Since he had built over his father's midan, he built an even larger one a short distance away. There were horse races held there almost every day and night.

It is also said that Khumaraweb's palace had rooms which were coated with thin sheets of gold studded with lapis lazuli. There were also wooden statues of himself and his wives dressed in golden cloth in a suite called the House of Gold. He had a zoo built that had a special house of lions. Each cage contained a lion and a lioness and had a door in which the keeper could clean out the room and put clean sand on the floor. Running water was also in each cage. There were times that Khumaraweh would let all of the lions out to play in the courtyard. The roars of the lions playing and fighting would shake all of Fustat throughout the night. Each lion was trained to go back to his cage when the keeper called him by name. Khumaraweh did have one special lion that he kept as his pet, Zouraik, which means "little blue". Zouraik had blue eyes and was led around by Khumaraweh by a gold collar. The lion slept near Khumaraweh, no matter where he was. Khumaraweh fed him goats and chickens and brushed his coat. There were also camels, leopards, giraffes, elephants, ponies and racehorses in the city.

The epitome of his self indulgence was his sleeping habits. Legend has it that he had trouble sleeping. To correct this, he had a lake dug in the garden of his palace which was thirteen hundred feet square. He filled the lake with mercury and placed an air mattress made of skins. The mercury made small waves which would rock him to sleep, as servants in a nearby alcove sang songs or chanted his favorite verses from the Koran. The mattress was tied to the edges of the lake by cords made of silk. If he still couldn't sleep, he would walk around the palace, entertain his lady friends or sit in his gardens.

Everything seemed to change for Khumaraweh after his favorite wife, Bouran, died. He had built the House of Gold for her. In 896, he was strangled in his bed by his servants and concubines. His bodyguard and lion were not able to save him. His killers were crucified. He was taken home to Fustat and buried near his father, somewhere at the foot of Mukattam.

Egypt was soon engulfed in corruption, while famine and the plague swept the nation. The Abbasids had once again gained strength, and they sent a soldier named Mohammed Ibn Sulyman to regain control of the country, which he did in 905. Mohammed Ibn Sulyman took four months to devastate El-Qatai. Over one hundred and sixty years later, a wall was built around El-Qatai and El Askar to hide them from the rest of the city. Today all that is left is the mosque. The Abbasid's intermediate rule only lasted for thirty years, until the Fatimid conquest of 969.

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Last Updated: June 20th, 2011